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This DNA Printing Outfit Is Basically Promising an IRL Version of 'Bioshock'

Fortunately, it's just rhetoric.

by Michael Byrne
Jan 4 2015, 10:11pm

​Image: Sergei Golyshev/Flickr

​You have to hand it to Cambrian Genetics for just going for it. The San Francisco-based startup, armed with about $10 million in venture funding, wants to "democratize creation," offering genetic material customized for pretty much whatever purpose the customer might dream up. That in itself isn't going for it—it's just genetic modification—but Cambrian offers up something extra: mythos, futurism, arch-libertarianism, and a bit of old-school comic book villiany.

In terms of public relations, Austen Heinz, the company's co-founder and pitchman, has recently been going absolutely fucking nuts. Choice quotes, ​offered to the Wall Street Journal, the ​Pioneers Festival, and a Cambrian ​profile in the San Francisco Chronicle include: "I can't believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally"; "we want to make totally new organisms that have never existed"; "[genetic modification] It is the most powerful technology humans have ever created."

"Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets, but this is a technology that can create planets," Heinz told the Chronicle's Stephanie E Lee. "This is the greatest human achievement of all time, the ability to read and write life, because that's who we are."

We wouldn't want the industry to be regulated.

The company currently supplies pharmaceutical companies with customized DNA, who then use it, presumably, for the usual drug testing stuff. How does such and such compound affect such and such tissue? Well, send away for a batch of DNA and grow the tissue itself in vitro. Or, how can we make mice better model human physiology? A little genomic twist here, a little something extra there, and so on. Voila: a mouse with human guts. ​There are thousands of custom-mutated mouse varieties.

And they all didn't come from Cambrian. This sort of genetic modification isn't some brand new concept. Heinz and co. instead offer a new way of DNA printing, a method that relies on a different sort of error correction in which many millions of strands are printed in a go rather than just one at a time. It's an efficiency advantage, which means a cost advantage. But why we're really talking about Cambrian is the rhetoric.

"We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed," Heinz declared at the Pioneers Festival. "And replace every existing organism with a better one."

Trolling, even.

Claims like that don't really match up to what Cambrian offers or could offer. Despite the headlines, a few bucks won't get you a brand new, customized bio-toy—now or anytime soon. But Heinz already has your attention, which is the point.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, calls the Cambrian pitch tech-libertarianism or worse. "We have to take seriously people like Austen Heinz who say they want to modify future generations of human beings and upgrade the human species," she told the Chronicle. "I think that technical project is far more complicated than they acknowledge. Nonetheless, their story about what we should be striving for as human beings, as a society, I think is very troubling."

Heinz carries the libertarian flag enthusiastically, if not in name, offering, "We wouldn't want the industry to be regulated." So: The creation of customized/modified lifeforms—any lifeform that isn't obviously something sinister, like Ebola, he says—shouldn't be regulated by the government. (Note, however, that the ​Cambrian Genomics website is emblazoned with the logo of the National Science Foundation.)

This is basically Bioshock's Rapture, in which the denizens of an underwater libertarian/Randian would-be paradise-of-individualism attempt to genetically modify their way toward customized superhumanity with gruesome results. Customized DNA is the myth of the individual taken to its total extreme, where we are not just islands of self-contained power but entire planets of it. We don't even have to share a species.